Sunday’s Dallas Morning News (pay wall) had a front-page story about the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System using fake online profiles in its war of words with the Nasher Sculpture Center. The Pension Fund owns Museum Tower. It’s been in a stalemated battle over whether reflected glare from the Tower is hurting the Nasher, and it’s used the fake profiles to post negative comments online — what’s called ‘sock puppeting’ or ‘Astroturfing’ (a fake grassroots campaign). KERA’s Jerome Weeks talks with Peter Vogel, a trial partner at Gardere Wynne Sewell who teaches a class on e-commerce at SMU Law School.
KERA radio report:
Weeks: Do we have any sense of how often this sort of thing happens today? That is, people or marketers creating fake identities online or through social media in order to post comments, positive or negative, as if they were members of the general public when they’re actually, directly involved in an issue?
Vogel: Oh, I think it’s unbelievably prevalent. It’s a reality of social media that I think people use these fake identities to improve a situation or make it worse. I think the classic is Yelp. There’ve been people that have been claiming that Yelp would either buy or sell good or bad reviews depending on what you wanted to do, and I think this is just endemic to social media.
Weeks: People have been creating fake identities probably since there have been people. What’s different about this?
Vogel: I don’t think the current circumstance going on in the Dallas area is particularly new. I think it’s an awareness that many individuals did not understand that this was going on.
Weeks: Are there legal repercussions for this kind of campaign?
Vogel: The initial reality of what goes on at the courthouse is a label that I like to call ‘cyber-smear.’ And that is, if there’s a grain of truth in whatever’s being said, it becomes debatable as to whether or not that’s libelous or slanderous. And so if we also have to look at each one of the statements to say, is this a truthful statement, regardless of who said it, is this a truthful statement or is it an out-and-out lie? The first amendment gives a lot of leeway to what people can say, anonymously or not.
Weeks: The Pension Fund’s legal team seems to have concluded this will only end in litigation. Why would a social media campaign be some sort of prelude to a lawsuit?
Vogel: Well, I’m not sure that it influences the lawsuit, I think what we’re looking at is trying to change public opinion. It’s kind of frustrating, I think, to have this front-page fight going on in our community. But if I’m an investor in the building, like the Pension Fund is, I care about that multi-million dollar investment. And they want to sell units there – I don’t know how that’s doing but I’m sure it’s being impacted. If they want to change the public’s perspective, this is one way to do it and in today’s world with the internet and social media, it’s extremely common.
Weeks: Thank you very much.
Vogel: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this today.